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Review: “People Love Dead Jews” by Dara Horn

All of this is captured in twelve essays in novelist Dara Horn’s powerful and coruscating book on why people still love dead Jews over living Jews. It is a book that shreds modern piety and sophistry in equal measure.”

Throughout history, people have found it easier to deal with Jews when they are dead rather than alive. In ancient times, Greece and Rome suppressed Jewish life and lives for the monotheism that repudiated their polytheist worldview. In medieval Europe, most Christians preferred the “rejectors of Christ” to be killed in pogroms, blood-libel mobs, and crusades than to live alongside them. Those in the supposedly more tolerant age of modernity managed sometimes to see Jews as human but still denied their religious and civilizational particularity, as in Revolutionary France. Then, of course, the cultural, social, and scientific Darwinism of 19th century Progress reprised the old hatreds for the modern world, and we made our way on the tracks of Progress into the execution trenches of the Eastern Front and the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz. Then, the memorialization of the Shoah, noble on its face, allowed non-Jews to ignore inconveniently living Jews as survivors in Europe or pioneers in Israel. Now, we see rising rates of anti-Semitic attacks and the spreading of anti-Semitic beliefs in Europe and the United States. All of this is captured in twelve essays in novelist Dara Horn’s powerful and coruscating book on why people still love dead Jews over living Jews. It is a book that shreds modern piety and sophistry in equal measure.

Given that Jewish people are such a small minority in the United States (2.2% at most), it is not surprising that most Americans do not know any living Jews in person. Horn illustrates this point with a personal anecdote about the reactions of two fellow teenagers, incredulous that she was a real, living Jewish girl, because a) she was blond, and Hitler had said Jews were brown haired and brown eyed (yes, really) and b) because “Like most people in the world, they had only encountered dead Jews: people whose sole attribute was that they had been murdered, and whose murders served a clear purpose, which was to teach us something. Jews were people who, for moral and educational purposes, were supposed to be dead.” 

And Jews, supposed to be dead in most peoples’ eyes, were subject to “a certain gaslighting about the Jewish past and present that I had never seen before, even when it was right in front of me. I had mistaken the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering for a sign of respect for living Jews,” an interest in dead Jews instead of living, especially observant ones, which revealed “something deeply perverse, and all the more so when it wore its goodwill on its sleeve.” They say dead men tell no tales, in which case how much easier is it to tell the tales of dead Jews so that we can make them conform to our own ideas of what they should represent? As a result, for Horn, “the popular obsession with dead Jews, even in its most apparently benign and civic-minded forms, is a profound affront to human dignity.”

This attitude is expressed in the focus on “Jewish heritage sites” in countries around the world that either killed or ejected their Jews. As Horn points out, “‘Jewish Heritage’ is a phrase that sounds utterly benign, or to Jews, perhaps ever so slightly dutiful, suggesting a place that you surely ought to visit—after all, you came all this way, so how could you not? It is a much better name than ‘Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.’” Horn visits the previously Russian, now-Chinese city of Harbin, originally founded by a group of Russian Jews moved there by the anti-Jewish Czarist government. There was a time of brief flourishing, of a flowering in civil society built around Jewish community groups, synagogues, and Zionist groups. And then came the inevitable dispossession and uprooting, first by White Russian thugs, then brutal Japanese imperialists, then by Russian and Chinese communists. All in all, the community lasted 30 years, less than a generation. 

When Horn visits, the Chinese authorities had “renovated” the Jewish cemetery, “the largest Jewish cemetery in the Far East,” even though no actual Jewish bodies are buried there, with headstones over empty ground. The actual Jewish bodies are buried underneath various municipal buildings. Of course, even these fake graves at the far eastern end of the Eurasian landmass cannot escape the degradation and vandalism so common in the West: “Many of the original grave markers had ceramic inserts with photographic portraits of the deceased, which would have been intriguing if every single one hadn’t been shattered or removed.”

There are memorials to Harbin’s Jews all around the city center, including a surreal life-size diorama of plaster cast Jewish residents doing supposedly Jewish things, a parody of life frozen in time as the ground is frozen outside the museum. Horn’s central argument here, as in the rest of the book, is that it is too easy to conscript the Jewish dead to one’s own tales of moral righteousness and ethical solipsism, given that dead Jews cannot argue back against their lives being stripped of all richness and complexity down to a shallow morality tale to bolster the reputation and image of those doing the telling. 

This also extends to Holocaust museums and education efforts. Something of this sort is surely needed, given that as Horn recounts, “two-thirds of American Millennials in one recent poll were unable to identify what Auschwitz was.” But the efforts supposedly to educate people about the dangers of anti-Semitism and the Shoah seem not to be having much of an effect, at least not that intended, given that rates of anti-Semitism are rising, in both beliefs and deeds. Maybe all this education “has the opposite effect from what we think. Perhaps we are giving people ideas. I don’t mean giving people ideas about how to murder Jews…I mean, rather, that perhaps we are giving people ideas about our standards. Yes, everyone must learn about the Holocaust so as not to repeat it. But this has come to mean that anything short of the Holocaust is, well, not the Holocaust. The bar is rather high.” 

The result is questions along the line of: Why be overly outraged by Jewish children hiding in bomb shelters in Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, or Hebron as terrorist rockets rain down; it is not like this amounts to the Holocaust, does it? Anyway, those cunning Jews have worked out how to defend themselves from missile attack or from professional, legal or educational discrimination, or they have recourse to the support of well-funded organizations should trouble arise. After all, since Jews are so well connected and highly placed, how can anti-Jewish hatred be that much of a problem given Jews’ privilege? As Horn notes, “It is quite amazing how many things are not the Holocaust.” 

For most people, they “might go to Holocaust museums to feel sad, and then to feel proud of themselves for feeling sad. They will have learned something officially important, discovered a fancy metaphor for the limits of Western civilization. The problem is that for us, dead Jews aren’t a metaphor, but rather actual people that we do not want our children to become.” Horn, walking through one exhibit, rightly becomes “furious, being lectured by this exhibition about love—as if the murder of millions of people was actually a morality play, a bumper sticker, a metaphor. I do not want my children to be someone else’s metaphor. (Of course, they already are.)”

This is the problem with much of the Holocaust education, as laid out by Ruth Wisse. Much of it ignores the specificity that Horn argues for, instead relativizing the Shoah through shallow moralism about “man’s inhumanity to man” and not letting hate win and about what happens when we do not love each other enough, a view that Horn writes bitingly “is entirely objectionable.” She continues: “The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented—have always represented, since they first introduced the idea of commandedness to the world—the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”

Holocaust education so often purposefully misdiagnoses the disease, ignoring the fact of institutionalized and genocidal anti-Semitism, and then it prescribes the wrong medicine, celebrating the need for inclusion and diversity, as well as the evil of borders, boundaries, and religious-cultural distinction. The Holocaust is reduced to being about bigotry, prejudice, and oppression as such, toward different groups of people, whichever happens to the be current victim flavor-of-the-moment, not about the actual Jews and their traditions and culture that the Nazis designed a continent spanning, mechanized killing machine to burn to ash. 

This suppression and press ganging of Jewish life through Jewish death into the service of non-Jews is seen in its starkest form through the example of Anne Frank, of the eponymous diary, translated into 70 languages and sold worldwide to millions of readers. Frank’s tragic life has been turned into a brand for consumption by those seeking validation without the challenge that this microcosm of the Shoah might otherwise present. Those who weep over Frank’s words do not realize that this was a living, breathing teenage girl, with the flaws and desires of a fully formed human being. 

Horn recounts how Frank has the makings of a talented writer, engaged in perfecting her craft even at her young age, but Frank’s appeal lies in “her lack of a future,” allowing “an exculpatory ease to embracing this ‘young girl,’ whose murder is almost as convenient for her many enthusiastic readers as it was for her persecutors.” Horn touches on a theme that recurs through her book, excoriating the assumption that the Shoah was a force of nature, something that just happened, enabling an erasure of the lives that might have been and which were ended not by impersonal forces but by men acting with agency in service of evil. As Horn writes, “The line most often quoted from Frank’s diary are her famous words, ‘I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.'”

These words are “inspiring, by which we mean that they flatter us. They make us feel forgiven for those lapses of our civilization that allow for piles of murdered girls—and if those words came from a murdered girl, well, then, we must be absolved, because they must be true. That gift of grace and absolution from a murdered Jew (exactly the gift that lies at the heart of Christianity) is what millions of people are so eager to find in Frank’s hiding place, in her writings, in her ‘legacy.’ It is far more gratifying to believe that an innocent dead girl has offered us grace than to recognize the obvious: Frank wrote about people being ‘truly good at heart’ before meeting people who weren’t. Three weeks after writing those words, she met people who weren’t.”

Similar themes of murder and loss are considered in the book’s longest chapter, on the Holocaust rescuer Varian Fry, who was responsible for securing safe passage to the United States for the cream of Europe’s Jewish intellectuals, who grew up in a milieu that in the 18th century made what Simon Schama describes as a great wager on participation in the newly opened European society and which produced some of the greatest composers, writers, artists, and thinkers in history. Those rescued included Hannah Arendt, among many others. On the surface, this seems like a tale of heroism, nobility, and duty to the good of people persecuted by an evil regime. 

And yet this stands in stark contrast to the perspective of Jewish writing, particularly in Yiddish. According to Horn, “stories with definitive endings don’t necessarily reflect a belief that the world makes sense, but they do reflect a belief in the power of art to make sense of it. What one finds in Jewish storytelling, though, is something really different: a kind of realism that comes from humility, from the knowledge that one cannot be true to the human experience while pretending to make sense of the world.” As a result, Jewish writers felt morally unjustified in writing such just-so stories with happy, uplifting endings that salved and soothed the consciences of voyeuristic middle-class American observers, who consume these stories of life triumphing over the odds as a way to escape any deeper reflection that might have led to the realization that none of this was inevitable or uncontrollable. 

As Horn writes, “readers who demanded…‘coherence’ from literature about the modern Jewish experience were essentially insisting that Jewish suffering was only worth examining if it provided, in the words of my reader’s memorable message, ‘a service to mankind,’” rather than being about Jews as particular people in a particular time and place, from a particular tradition and culture. This erasure of Jews as full individuals and a people in favor of redemptive avatars is an ethical crime, implying as it does that “dead Jews are supposed to teach us about the beauty of the world and the wonders of redemption—otherwise, what was the point of killing them in the first place? That’s what dead Jews are for!”

The “assumption in such stories is that the open maw of death for Europe’s Jews and dissidents was something like a natural disaster,” which accepts the premise “that innocent people are doomed to be murdered,” while in the world of blood and bullets this was caused by the malevolent designs of men, who pursued what Horn calls the Purim (kill all Jews) and Hanukkah (kill the traditions and culture that makes Jews Jewish) forms of anti-Semitism, the moral horror consequently multiplied a hundredfold. 

Horn reveals that the reality of the act of rescue is freighted with moral complexity and emotional turmoil, both for the rescuer and those rescued. While Fry’s chronicler, Pierre Sauvage, argues that rescuers had a strong sense of themselves and were content with their own identity and lot in life, that “they are happy, secure people with a profound awareness of who they are,” Horn shows how Fry was both a detached and uncommitted man in his personal life, while privately devastated at not being able to save more of Europe’s Jews from becoming ash on the breeze. As Horn chronicles, after the war, Fry wrote of his anguish: “‘I have tried—God knows I have tried,’ Fry wrote in his memoir’s unpublished preface, ‘to get back again into the mood of American life. But it doesn’t work…If I can make others see it and feel it as I did, then maybe I can sleep soundly again at night.'”

This inner turmoil of the rescuer is matched by that of the rescued, who almost never acknowledged the reason they lived to live again in America and escaped the flames their works were cast into. As Horn writes, “This was partly because they simply wanted to forget the greatest horror of their lives.” Arendt’s arguments for the “banality of evil” carried out by “the inability to think” of men like Adolf Eichmann arguably relieves some of the horror in the minds of these survivors. This was through its evocation of automaton-like perpetrators, unthinking and sub-rational killers acting without malice, hate or lust for violence. But Horn argues that “there is also something inherently shameful in the rescuer-rescued relationship—the humiliation of being reduced to depending on another person for survival—and that shame expresses itself in resentment toward rescuers.” 

The shame that Horn writes of feeling when faced with the Shoah as a Jew was exacerbated for these individuals: “How on earth, Fry’s rescued Jews and dissidents must have wondered, could we wildly successful adults have gotten ourselves into this pathetic situation—where our lives suddenly depend on the religious commitments of a pig farmer, or the intellectual ambitions of an oddball like Varian Fry?” After all, if these finest examples of European intellectual life were exiled or killed by something akin to an asteroid rather than thinking, acting men with agency and rationality from whom they had to be saved by placing themselves in the hands of such weirdos, then it becomes less personal and somewhat easier to deal with. 

As Horn further writes, “‘Gratitude is what makes you hate someone,’ Hannes Stein, a German Jewish journalist with whom I shared my bafflement about the legacy of Varian Fry, told me.” This sentiment is one I am well acquainted with, the mixture of need and resentment at the need a constant in the disabled life. In recent years, I have come to see gratitude as a liberation, but given the insurmountable fact of the Shoah and its destruction of an entire Jewish way of life along with most of those people who practiced it (from which Arendt and her fellow intellectuals had to be rescued), the lack of acceptance is more than comprehensible and should perhaps be less surprising than many find it.

Fry’s attempts to alert the American reading public to the wholesale slaughter of Europe’s Jews in the pages of the New Republic fell on death ears, which is not surprising given that papers like the New York Times supressed publication of the facts of the Shoah and the State Department and Roosevelt administration also knew of the unfolding atrocity but did nothing, admitted less, and turned away Jewish refugees back into the jaws of the Nazi death-machine. Horn quotes Christopher Caldwell’s review of Fry’s memoir, Caldwell writing, “let us not forget that [Fry] was a prophet, too, and put himself in harm’s way to prevent the future he saw unrolling before him. Not the ideal person, maybe. But certainly the kind that every generation has always had too few of.” This status of prophet means Fry’s oddness is that of Ezekiel, and according to Horn, “the real reason that no one today has heard of Varian Fry is because the gift he had is not one that we value.”

This lack of recognition of such a man demonstrates that how we engage with the facts of the past is shaped by our self-perception and our society and culture and the things they value. Today, we seek redemptive examples to absolve us of the lack in our own lives. We find it hard to accept the stories of dead non-Jews as they imperfectly were, let alone dead Jews on their own terms. It is rare to see Jewish history and culture portrayed as peopled with individuals there not to confirm our own moral preconceptions about right and wrong but living breathing individuals who were linked by the chain of existence and memory into a civilization that stretches back thousands of years. A civilization built on a culture rooted in a Jewish tradition “that is designed to protect against oblivion, capturing ancient experiences in ritual and story and passing them between generations,” where “the Hebrew Bible was never discussed in historical context, because we were the historical context. It was our present, and in my family’s religious life, it was treated that way.” 

This distinctiveness maintained through the threads of tradition and faith has stretched down the years, binding members of the Jewish people with the woven bond of time-accepting and therefore time-transcending culture. One of the most powerful passages in Horn’s book comes when she describes what, for her, Jews actually represent in societies where they are minorities. In these places, “Jews have represented the frightening prospect of freedom. As long as Jews existed in any society, there was evidence that it in fact wasn’t necessary to believe what everyone else believed, that those who disagreed with their neighbors could survive and even flourish against all odds.” Jews are, thus, the embodiment of what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called “the dignity of difference,” the achievement of the universal only reached through the particular, the particular elevated by the universal. 

For Horn, “Jews’ continued distinctiveness, despite overwhelming pressure to become like everyone else, demonstrated their enormous effort” to cultivate the true freedom through the cultivation of responsibility, discipline, and duty to memory that undergirds the “devotion to law and story, deep literacy, and an absolute obsessiveness about consciously transmitting those values between generations.” It is only through limitation that true liberty and freedom is attained, and “the existence of Jews in any society is a reminder that freedom is possible, but only with responsibility—and that freedom without responsibility is no freedom at all.” Anti-Semitism, therefore, partly maintains its timeless appeal to so many for the abdication of responsibility to rational inquiry and intellectual discernment that it offers through its status as a balm to the resentful and insecure. Why invest in one’s own agency and one’s own life when it is easier just to blame all that is wrong in one’s own world on the nefarious Jew?

It is because of the powerful vision of true liberty-through-limitation enabled by the fidelity to Jewish tradition and memory that Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that it was perhaps not surprising that one of her Jewish students found a great deal of value in the philosophy of Edmund Burke, who despite his lapses into anti-Jewish invective on occasion, “impressed her [with] his defense of tradition and religion—and of religion as tradition. This is what spoke to her, as an Orthodox Jew, so directly and powerfully.” It was Burke, after all, who wrote that “it is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters,” that “people will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors,” and of how society was “A partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

In this context, it is impossible to forget or ignore Israel. Horn does not mention Israel often in the book, except to note the increasingly toxic tone of discussion of the world’s only Jewish state. Perhaps this was a prudent decision, given she has enough to deal with reflecting on the violence perpetrated in the European past and the American present. We have seen repeated mass shootings of Jews at synagogues, like in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life, or street attacks and assaults in New York and the surrounding suburbs, where violence against Jews is explained away as “community tensions” or put down to “property ownership,” all of which comes down to saying without speaking it that it is basically Jews’ fault for being attacked and if they were not so insistent on being so Jewish and being near other people, then maybe they would be left in peace. 

This implicit blame, explicit in the past and increasingly so today, frames the status of Israel. Horn’s writing concerning peoples’ preference for dead Jews over live ones is encapsulated in attitudes toward Israel. Not only is this a state of, by, and for Jews; it defends itself so that Jews do not just die like martyrs for Christian-inflected redemption narratives. Not only that, but it is a testament to the continued place of national consciousness in the world, a fact resented by the post-national elites of the non-Jewish western world. As I have written elsewhere, “Israel reminds those of us in the safe, prosperous, and senescent West what it means to be a nation in history. This arguably explains a good deal of the resentment many Europeans feel towards the Jewish state. Those they tried to kill not only survived, but are a living, national refutation of the supposed one-way march towards a comfortable End of History where the lotus-eating Last Men can simply while away their existence, sedated by materialism and consumerism.” 

Israel—and its living, fighting, and thriving Jews—is a complete repudiation of right-wing anti-Semitism but also of liberal universalism and its denigration of cultural and values difference. Israel is a living, breathing example of Jews who use state power to ensure their survival and flourishing and refuse Western conscription into their morality tales of good and bad, right and wrong that amount to little more than John Lennon’s musical void of a song “Imagine” made concrete in government policy. Israel is the national embodiment of the links with the past and the promise to the future, expressed in the traditions and culture that Horn writes of. No wonder Europeans and American leftists hate Israel so much when these obstreperous Jews refuse to lie down and die for the cause of non-Jewish political narratives. Israelis refuse to conform to notions of Christian-inflected secular liberal morality, living for themselves and for the traditions that grew out of the Covenant with God. 

Horn’s book is a rallying cry against these notions across the United States, applicable to the rest of the Western world. Her message might be summed up as: Jews are not reducible to corpses, to the playthings of history where their voice is more easily drowned out. They are not actors, ghosts on a spirit-stage, coerced into the shadow drama of the non-Jewish soul. Jews are living, breathing people who share a connection through a living tradition that reaches beyond itself, backward and forward in time. Jews are stubbornly still not dead as a people, whatever anti-Semites may wish for. Maybe people can learn to appreciate living Jews for who they are and learn to let dead Jews rest through rightly ordered memory. This powerful book is a start down to the road to making this happen.

Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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